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Romero answers the question of who a pastor should side with


Mass for the Beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero


29 May 2015

Archbishop Oscar Romero It’s a great joy for us the Church of Canberra to gather at the invitation of the El Salvador Australia Friendship Association to offer this mass as a Homage to the Blessed Oscar Romero and his work.  We call to mind the dreadful civil war that ripped your country apart between 1979 and 1992.  We recall that Oscar Romero was chosen by the Vatican to be the new archbishop of San Salvador in 1977 because he was regarded as a safe spiritual leader who was acceptable to the politically powerful in El Salvador.  It was thought that he would not challenge the status quo.  Such predictions came to nought given the events of 12 March 1977 when his friend, the Jesuit Fr Rutillio Grande SJ was killed with two of his companions.

When Romero learnt about the murder of his priestly friend, the new Archbishop went to the church where the three bodies had been laid and celebrated Mass. He then spent time listening to the stories of suffering local peasant farmers.  Next morning, after meeting with his priests and advisers, Romero announced that he would not attend any state occasions nor meet with the president — both traditional activities for his longtime predecessor — until Grande’s death was investigated. No investigation was ever conducted, and Romero attended no state functions in his three short, but long, years as Archbishop.

The American poet Carolyn Forché who spent years in El Salvador listening to the horrific stories has often spoken in the US about ‘A Poet’s Journey from El Salvador: Witness in the Light of Conscience’.  She was a good friend of Romero.  She was with him the week before he was assassinated in March 1980.  This is how she told the story:

I met with Monsignor in the kitchen of the convent of the Carmelite Missionary Sisters, where he told me gently that it was time for me to go home, as the situation had become too dangerous, and I was more needed in the United States, in the work of helping Americans to understand the struggle for justice.  But I begged him to leave, as his was the first name on the death squads’ lists. He seemed so calm that afternoon, tapping his fingers on the Bible he carried with him.  I realised I was in the presence of a saint. ‘No’, he said, ‘my place is with my people, and now your place is with yours.’

A week later on the night before he was murdered, Romero made a personal appeal to the military in a desperate attempt to stop the civilian killings in El Salvador:

I would like to appeal in a special way to the men of the army, and in particular to the troops of the National Guard, the police and the garrisons. Brothers, you belong to our own people. You kill your own brother peasants; and in the face of an order to kill that is given by a man, the law of God that says ‘Do not kill!’ should prevail. No soldier is obliged to obey an order counter to the law of God. No one has to comply with an immoral law. It is time now that you recover your conscience and obey its dictates rather than the command of sin.... Therefore, in the name of God, and in the name of this long-suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven every day more tumultuous, I beseech you, I beg you, I command you! In the name of God: ‘Cease the repression!’

Next day, 24 March 1980, while he was celebrating mass in a small chapel, a lone gunman came and shot him dead at the altar.  Romero lay at the altar as a martyr of the Church of the Second Vatican Council.  He had what Pope Francis calls ‘the smell of the sheep’. He was a martyr who stood for love.

At the mass of beatification last Saturday attended by 300,000 people, eight deacons and priests carried Romero’s blood-stained shirt, now a relic, to the altar in a glass case. Others decorated it with flowers and candles.  Many concelebrating priests reached out to touch the case then making the sign of the cross.  Cardinal Angelo Amato, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Saints’ Causes declared, ‘Blessed Romero is another brilliant star that belongs to the sanctity of the church of the Americas.  And thanks be to God, there are many.’  So we remember too those many anonymous citizens who were gunned down during the dreadful civil war.  In a message sent for the beatification, Pope Francis said Romero ‘built the peace with the power of love, gave testimony of the faith with his life.’

After mass on Pentecost Sunday in Rome, Pope Francis spoke with affection about Archbishop Romero ‘who was killed, out of hatred of the faith, as he celebrated the Eucharist’.  Francis hailed Romero as ‘a zealous pastor who, (following) in the example of Jesus, chose to be in the midst of his people, especially the poor and oppressed, even at the cost of his life.’

We recall that Romero’s life and death were bookended by the Jesuit murders, first of Fr Grande in 1977 and then on 16 November 1989, of the six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter at the Universidad Centroamerica (UCA).  The latter killings highlighted how dirty was the civil war and how complicit was the United States.  I have recently returned from Boston College whose legendary president Fr Donald Monan SJ, accompanied by other Jesuit university presidents from the USA, went to El Salvador and sat through the trial of the soldiers indicted with those killings.  He spent years lobbying US congressmen to withdraw support for the unaccountable military in El Salvador, observing, ‘The intellectual architects of this crime have never been publicly identified’ or called to account.

Fr Ignacio Ellacuria SJ, the rector of UCA who was the main target of the later assassinations taught the American poet Forché that ‘each moment of our life shapes the whole of our life, and that we are not always responsible for what befalls us but we are certainly responsible for our response’.  When Ellacuria became rector of UCA he said that his country was ‘an unjust and irrational reality that should be transformed’ and that the university needed to contribute to social change: ‘It does this in a university manner and with a Christian inspiration.’ When Monan returned from El Salvador, he was fond of telling his American students: ‘We must do all we can to ensure that freedom predominates over oppression, justice over injustice, truth over falsehood, and love over hatred.’

Carlos Dada writing in this week’s issue of the New Yorker says:

Romero was not a theologian and never considered himself part of Liberation Theology, the most radical Catholic movement born of Vatican II. But he shared with the liberationists a vision of a Gospel meant to protect the poor.

Romero was fond of asking, ‘Between the powerful and the wealthy, and the poor and vulnerable, who should a pastor side with?’ He had no hesitation in answering, ‘I have no doubts. A pastor should stay with his people.’  

Carlos Dada says this ‘was a political decision, but justified theologically. All of his writings include extensive biblical references, Church documents, and Papal quotations to support his assertions.’

The US bishop Ken Untener when reflecting on the life of his fellow bishop Romero wrote: ‘We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.’  As we come to the table of the Eucharist, celebrating the one whose blood was poured out for us, the one who is the bread of life, let’s recall the sacramental irony that the newly Blessed one in his last homily delivered minutes before his death at the altar reflected on Jesus’s words in John’s Gospel: ‘Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains alone.  But if it dies it produces much fruit.’  We Australians pray in thanks for those of you from El Salvador who fled to these shores to escape the terror of that dreadful civil war, and we pray that your commitment to peace and reconciliation for all continues to be one of the great fruits of the one we celebrate this evening.  Let’s join with Pope Francis who prayed this week, ‘May those who have Archbishop Romero as a friend of faith, those who invoke him as protector and intercessor, those who admire his image, find in him the strength and courage to build the Kingdom of God, to commit to a more equal and dignified social order.’

Frank Brennan SJ is the author of No Small Change: The Road to Recognition for Indigenous Australia (University of Queensland Press).

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Oscar Romero, Rutillo Grande, El Salvador



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Existing comments

Thank you for your reflective and insightful address on Archbishop Romero. The article reminds all of us that as followers of Jesus from our baptism, we have a commitment to work diligently for peace and reconciliation.

John O'Neill | 02 June 2015  

Thank you Frank, for this ever-urgent reminder of Oscar Romero's deep and ever abiding faith and love. As an Australian I know that I live with injustice and wonder >what am I prepared to do? We are too often comfortable and remote;protected by protocols, privilege and materialism from looking even at our own doorstep.

Catherine | 02 June 2015  

The Pope is a Jesuit. Why is Frank Brennan SJ not the Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney is beyond me...

Francis Douglas | 02 June 2015  

Thanks Frank for this very moving piece.May Romero inspire US ALL!

Fr Cedric Prakash sj | 02 June 2015